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Viva Zivaz!

While Zivaz looks familiar, its nuanced food in a fast-casual concept is delightfully unique

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If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, then Pei Wei Asian Diner should be embarrassed by all the flattery thrown its way by Zivaz Mexican Bistro.

When Garrett and I walked into Zivaz for the first time, its resemblance to Pei Wei was the very first thing we noticed. The restaurants are virtually identical in design and layout, from the menu boards to the seating to the open-view kitchen to the red swish in the logo. Even the takeout menus look alike. The Valenzuela family borrowed a LOT from the P.F. Chang's-owned fast-casual chain.

Fortunately, Zivaz imitates Pei Wei in another way: quality.

We visited Zivaz on a recent Sunday evening. After perusing the menu boards--which listed five appetizers, four salads, two soups and nearly two dozen entrées--we placed our order at the counter. We got a lot of food: the mushrooms al ajillo (sautéed mushrooms, $4.95) and nachos Zivaz (with beef, $7.95; other options include chicken, vegetables, salmon or a combination) as appetizers; a split order of the sopa de tortilla (with a side salad, $4.95); and as entrées, the pescado ajillo (fire-grilled mahi-mahi, $11.95) for Garrett and the mole enchiladas (with chicken, $8.95; other options include beef, seafood or vegetables) for me.

We sat down and were almost immediately brought multi-colored chips with red and green salsas. As we munched on the chips and salsa--both were very good, albeit a little salty--and listened to the Mexican pop music being piped in, we looked over the colorful décor (featuring lots of muted orange, yellow and green, along with black) and watched traffic zoom by on Broadway Boulevard.

Then came the food. Zivaz earned instant points for presentation, and for splitting the soup into two bowls, without us even asking. (I simply mentioned while ordering that we were splitting the soup.) The delicious mushrooms were served in a taco shell, sautéed in white wine and packed with garlic; chiles and cilantro were also in the dish, but garlic dominated the taste, and we were thrilled. The nachos came in an oblong dish and consisted of chips, nacho cheese, guacamole, pico de gallo and, off to the side, an ample number of jalapeño slices.

However, the thing that most excited Garrett and me was the tortilla soup. To digress for a moment ... we've been deeply missing the tortilla soup at Romi's, which closed in December. Well, this soup looked just like the Romi's soup--with a red-hued broth, lots of tortilla strips, avocado and cheese. Sadly, it didn't have the flavor. The broth wasn't as nuanced, although it was not bad at all. A word of advice: With either of Zivaz's soups, stir them up as you eat, because the spices tend to settle at the bottom. With the tortilla soup, the broth actually seemed bland for the first few bites, whereas the last bites packed a punch.

We were still finishing the soup when a server delivered the main courses. My mole enchilada was tasty, although it was assembled strangely--the chicken was on top of, not inside of, the cheese-filled tortilla. That provided more of a challenge to get everything in one bite. Regardless, I enjoyed the dish. The rice, beans and salad that accompany most of the dishes were adequate, if nothing special.

Meanwhile, Garrett was delighted with his pescado ajillo. The mahi-mahi was complemented by garlic and mushrooms (much like the appetizer), chiles and olive oil. The fish was perfectly cooked and loaded with flavor. You'd be hard pressed to find a fish dish better than this around town--especially at a fast-casual restaurant, for $11.95.

After that first visit, we were looking forward to visit No. 2. That came a week later, again on a Sunday evening. (At lunch, the menu is the same; the only difference is that lunch portions of selected dishes are offered for $7.44). We ordered the Mexican sushi (a veggie- and cheese-filled wrap, $4.95) and the quesadilla Zivaz (with beef, $7.95; salmon, chicken and vegetables are other options) for appetizers, along with the sopa tlalpeño ($6.95). For main dishes, I picked the tacos with chicken ($6.95), and Garrett chose the carne asada (served with a casera cheese enchilada, $11.95).

The quesadilla--a large flour tortilla folded with black beans, cilantro, peppers, cheese, tomato and onion--was pretty good, although Garrett had mixed feelings; he doesn't care much for black beans, and they surprisingly dominated the dish. He wanted more chicken. Meanwhile, the Mexican sushi was the least-impressive dish we had. It looked great--a rolled red tortilla was cut to look like a sushi roll--but the taste was mediocre. The "sushi" had lots of finely chopped vegetables (spinach, greens, mushrooms, cucumbers, carrots and peppers) along with bland cream and panela cheeses. The only real strong flavor came from the chile-soy dipping sauce.

The sopa tlalpeño, however, was fantastic. It had a similar appearance to the sopa de tortilla, with the same ingredients, but more sat beneath the surface: vegetables, chicken and lots of garbanzo beans. It was a success--and the broth seemed more flavorful than on the first visit. The only complaint came from Garrett, who said it may have been too chunky.

Speaking of too chunky ... there were my tacos. The two tortillas were beyond stuffed with chicken, lettuce and tomatoes, with guacamole, salad, beans and rice on the side. There was no way to pick up the tacos and eat them without a resulting mess, so I ate them as I would eat a chicken salad. They were decent; other than the overstuffing, nothing was wrong with them, but nothing made them stand out, either.

Garrett's carne asada did stand out; it was terrific. The tender steak strips were cooked exactly as Garrett requested (medium); Garrett thought the flavor from the marinade could have been stronger, but I thought it was fine. One faux pas: They only brought two tortillas, which was nowhere near enough. The cheese enchilada was fairly typical.

After declining the one dessert option (flan), we grabbed our leftovers and left. Meal No. 2 wasn't as excellent as the first, but it was still pretty darned good. While the Valenzuela family may have borrowed the look, their melding of nuanced Mexican food into a fast-casual concept is delightfully unique.

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